There was no way Atlanta’s writers would let the final season pass without giving viewers the bizarreness that attracted them to the series in the first place. The hit FX show is well into Season 4, and it’s been just as peculiar as you’d expect. Episode 5 titled “Work Ethic!” features a powerful TV producer named Kirkwood Chocolate (presumably portrayed by Donald Glover who also directed the episode), a one-off character similar to Season 2’s Teddy Perkins.
The entertainment mogul has created an empire and built a giant movie studio in Atlanta—similar to Tyler Perry’s movie studio in Georgia—where he produces movies and television geared toward a Black audience. While he has many fans, others, like Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz), find his work to be stereotypical and derogatory for creating exaggerated portrayals of Black people. Mr. Chocolate represents real-life producers and executives in show business who have dedicated their careers to making content for a Black audience that not all Black people see themselves in. The reality is that he also represents non-Black executives in Hollywood who believe that including stereotypes within their shows or movies somehow makes the stories more marketable.
The episode’s writer, Janine Nabers, says that although Mr. Chocolate feels familiar and similar to someone like Perry, the character is an “amalgamation” of different Hollywood people. “There’s an aesthetic when it comes to Black folk and art that I think some people really double down on. I think Mr. Chocolate is not just one person,” Nabers, who also wrote the Van-centered “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town” episode in Season 3, tells Complex. “He represents many different people in Hollywood that kind of have this similar aesthetic of Blackness and art and the stories that we tell and what resonates with being a compelling Black story or a real Black story.”
Season 3 ended with Van questioning who she is apart from Earn (Glover) and whether she is a good mother to their daughter, Lottie (Austin Elle Fisher). After the last few episodes focused on the rest of the characters like Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and Earn, the spotlight is now back on Van. “Work Ethic!” starts with Van taking on an acting role in a TV show created by Mr. Chocolate in an effort to become more autonomous and do something that would make Lottie proud.
Throughout the episode, Van’s demeanor comes off as someone who feels superior to the stories Mr. Chocolate sells. His employees at the studio seem to venerate him for his contributions to their lives and to the Black community as a whole, but when she interacts with them, Van still talks down on his work and what it represents. She seems to consider it all lowbrow, and even pokes fun at his work receiving recognition by the BET Awards and the NAACP, referring to them as “Black awards.” While this was Van’s moment to shine, she quickly gets eclipsed by her daughter. The mysterious Mr. Chocolate (who is an omnipresent God-like figure who oversees the sets through cameras and communicates with everyone via a speaker system) takes a liking to Lottie.
Lottie then becomes the star of multiple shows and Van loses control as the child is taken from set to set, (the sound stages are named after stars like the late John Witherspoon and Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr.) acting in various scenes throughout the day. The filmmaker and the team are churning out content, and not making anything of value, and Van and Lottie get swept up in the process. While Van wants out, Lottie seems to be enjoying the experience and wants to continue working with Mr. Chocolate, who promises the child a lifetime of financial success.
The episode is a commentary on the concept of Black art, and what makes it “good” or “bad.” Although people like Earn and Van might not enjoy the content Mr. Chocolate creates, there are millions of people who do. It still doesn’t ever feel like the episode’s intention is to poke fun at or ridicule but more so to examine people like Mr. Chocolate and his intentions, giving a full scope of what this kind of person represents to everyone. The filmmaker is exploitative to an extent and has amassed his wealth by feeding into stereotypes, but in many ways, he is also providing opportunities for thousands of people who may have been overlooked in life and in Hollywood and giving them a solid starting point.
The characters in Atlanta are rarely ever clearly labeled as good or bad, and that’s really the beauty of the show. Like the rest of us, they are simply flawed human beings with strengths and weaknesses, who have their own motivations and reasoning for being who they are. If you’ve been paying attention to Season 4 so far, the writers are seemingly tying up all the loose ends as the series slowly comes to an end. Season 4’s episodes have already set the stage for where the main characters are going to end up in the finale.
Nabers says that Season 4 so far has been a vessel to answer lingering questions fans have had about the characters since Season 1. Like in this season’s episode “The Homeliest Little Horse,” Earn finally revealed why he dropped out of Princeton, and that gave viewers insight into how he ended up becoming the man he is. “We’ve done this really cool thing with Season 4, where we really give these characters the ending that I think they deserve,” Nabers says. “A lot of them are confronting these kinds of questions about themselves in these episodes that are questions that we’ve been asking about them for so long, too.”
Nabers hopped on a call with Complex to speak on Van’s journey in Episode 5, Lottie finding her voice, Atlanta’s exploration of what is considered “good” Black art, and more. The final season of Atlanta is currently airing on FX on Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.